Good Posture? Why it’s More about ‘Stress’ than ‘Correct’
I have to admit, when it comes to posture, I’ve been on the offensive up until now. The ‘posture police’ one would call me, has seen me singularly pulling up my fellow colleagues for slumping or sitting ‘poorly’. Having been a dynamic reformer Pilates addict for the last 10 years, and now being a yoga teacher, who would blame me. Posture, we are told, is the key to longevity and a life free of aches and pains.
The topic came to mind when I was chatting to Phil, a fellow office worker, who pointed out my ‘poor posture’ where my shoulders were protracted forward whilst reading a document. Having been through ‘back pain’ hell, that’s understandable. Correct ‘posture’ is a means by which he can manage the ‘pain’ and live a relatively normal life in the office.
Upon further research, and inspired by Dr Yogi‘s recent campaign of #yogafakenews, I started to look further into the matter. I soon learnt that despite all the claims in the world that poor posture was the cause of back pain, poor digestion and even mental health issues, none of the evidence actually supported such claims.
Puzzling, isn’t it? I mean, it makes perfect sense that poor posture could cause pain in the body to arise. We have, after all, a back that is perfectly shaped to support the weight of the head through the natural curvature of the thoracic and lumbar spine. Surely poor posture is a problem?
The Myth of ‘Poor Posture’
It appears not. Good posture it seems, as a cause of back pain, is a myth. Rather, back pain can arise due to acute injuries, or more commonly through ‘postural stress’. That is, ergonomically holding the body in unnatural and forced positions for a long period of time. Think airline seats, think poorly fitted desk chairs. On top of being sedentary for a long period of time, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Why does Poor Posture Not Matter?
It rather seems that when it comes to poor posture, the body is able to adapt over time to chronic stress placed upon it, similar to muscles and weight training.
In addition, what is even more interesting is that not all people with tissue damage feel pain. Many studies have shown that there are large percentages of people out there who, after having an MRI, would show tissue damage, shoulders or knees even where there is bulging discs, rotator cuff tears or injured menisci (the soft cartilage sitting above the knee joint) but show no symptoms of pain. The reason for this is complex, being that tissue damage is only one reason for the cause of pain. As the body ages, it naturally degenerates. But that’s not necessarily going to cause pain.
Finally, every body is different. Yes really! So, different shapes and sizes of bones will determine the most comfortable and efficient way to sit, stand or move. The corollary being that what is ‘dysfunctional’ alignment for one person, is ‘perfect’ or optimal for another. Therefore, to identify the ‘ideal posture’ when ‘difference’ is the norm is difficult.
Is Good Posture Irrelevant then?
So is the lesson that good posture ‘does not matter?’ No. There are certain times when applying correct posture is important. These would include when applying force and physical movement. Lifting weights, running, sprinting, jumping or practicing yoga for that matter. All of these exercises exert some force upon the body, for which correct alignment may help.
Ironically, one of my ‘posture police’ victims (Billy) presented himself at the office one day with ‘back pain’. Cause: lifting weights inappropriately at the gym. In this regard, an accident caused his back pain rather than ‘poor posture’. He didn’t magically turn up to work with the pain. It was causative, as opposed to being a product of.
The same in any physical practice: the failure to ‘warm up’ properly may result in injury – the body is simply not ready for the demands that are being placed upon it. Popping into a deep back bend at the beginning of the yoga practice is not advisable.
Moreover, when moving, having the full range and ability through the chest and shoulders will help with reaching, rotating and all round mobility in the body.
Finally, varying posture seems the most important aspect and avoiding sedentary habits. Getting up and moving about will help maintain blood flow through the body and with distributing stress rather than concentrating it in one specific position. It also goes without saying that if ergonomically your body is caught in an awkward position, then change it! Adjust the height of your screen or chair at work. Take the ‘stress’ out of your environment and you will eliminate a cause of potential pain arising.
So what can one do? Well, if you already have back pain, then sitting correctly and being mindful of your posture will certainly help. In the case of Phil in my office, he swears by it as his modus to recovery. Getting enough sleep, and stress reduction can all help too. Poor sleep and stress can result in an inflammation response, potentially arising in the muscles tensing up and causing pain.
So there you have it. When it comes to posture, it really is down to you. I would still encourage people to sit in a more natural upright position at their desks at work, but the fact that you may slouch from time to time probably isn’t going to do you any harm. To that extent, I’ve given up my role as the ‘posture police’ in the office. What a relief.